By Becky Waxman
This is Part Two in a
three-part series about companionship in casual games.
Part One contains the series introduction and a discussion of companions
who take on the role of sidekicks.
A mentor, unlike a
sidekick, isn't a servant or an underling and he or she (usually) can't be
hired. Mentors begin in a position of authority, or they choose to guide the
protagonist, often without fully explaining why they've chosen to do so.
They always know things that the protagonist hasn't learned yet -- past
history that's important for the context of a mystery and/or a detailed "big
picture" understanding of the current situation. Often mentors recognize
hidden or underdeveloped abilities that the hero or heroine isn't aware of
yet. Mentors present themselves as trustworthy and competent. It's up to the
protagonist, through the course of the story, to decide whether the mentor
has a darker, more troubled aspect to his character or his past.
Mentors can be teachers,
instructing the hero how to proceed or helping him develop new skills. They
may guide the heroine on her journey. Like sidekicks, mentors often are
equipped to give puzzle hints. Unlike sidekicks, mentors usually don't
accompany the heroine throughout the entire adventure. They come and go,
disappearing and reappearing -- or they are present periodically as a voice
or a spirit.
Regardless of the
mentor's greater experience or knowledge, in the game's climactic moment or
final confrontation, the hero transcends the mentor and solves the mystery,
finds the right path, and/or singlehandedly defeats the villain.
I'm aware that many gamers partner with
their children to play casual games. I've put an asterisk in front of each
game that is more appropriate for teens and up, rather than young children.
Further note -- all the games below feature a point-and-click interface and
use a first person perspective.
Inspector Fowler --
*Penny Dreadfuls: Sweeney
In this Interactive
Hidden Object Game (IHOG), you play as a detective in 19th century London,
investigating the disappearance of a young sailor. You are under the
supervision of Inspector Fowler of The Watch. You never see his face, but
you frequently hear his gruff, cockney voice. Inspector Fowler doesn't
suffer fools gladly (especially you). He prods, reminds, explains and
criticizes. He is also extremely well voiced and his offhand remarks are a
hoot. (I particularly enjoyed the comment about women's handbags.)
The environments include
several locations in the seedier parts of London. Graphics are
naturalistically rendered in careful historical detail, and enhanced by fog
abound, plus standalone puzzles which often involve pattern analysis.
Frequent Hidden Object (HO) Find List screens range in difficulty from dicey
to very tough. Each chapter of the game opens with a list of evidence to
find. You don't really understand the importance of each item of evidence
until the end of the chapter when, with help from the Inspector's snide case
notes, all becomes clear.
This game's villain is
the shady character of Sweeney Todd, who first saw life in a penny dreadful
(the 19th century equivalent of a graphic novel). As a reference to
Sweeney's recent Broadway musical associations, brief portions of the story
are told in operatic recitative, with visual panels illustrating events as
the characters sing. The music heightens the emotional appeal, while
intensifying the unfolding story. I've never seen anything quite like it in
vs. Mera -- Science vs. Magic
Guardians of Magic:
Amanda, the heroine of
this adventure-lite/casual adventure, is something of an anomaly -- in a
magical world, she is interested in science. Amanda's grandfather arranges
for a scientist friend, Dr. Magus, to tutor Amanda and to encourage her
natural curiosity. The mentoring relationship ends abruptly when the two men
quarrel over the conflicts between science and magic.
Graphics in Amanda's
Awakening are hand drawn and colorful. The magical realm is detailed,
but with a nostalgic, soft-focus aura. Sprightly music plays in the
background. The non-magical world, in contrast, is stark and minimalist.
Amanda returns to her
grandfather's home after his death to find a mysterious package and a
crystal ball. Reflected in the crystal ball is the image of Mera Whitelaw, a
magician with delicate, elf-like features. Mera speaks through the crystal
ball, informing Amanda that she is imprisoned somewhere in the non-magical
world. The package also contains the blueprint for a device that will allow
Amanda to find and release Mera. To do this, however, Amanda must overcome
her disbelief in the power of magic.
As Amanda's preternatural
abilities awaken, she must solve a series of constellation connection
challenges, use portals to other times and dimensions, and learn spells that
involve moving the mouse in a specific pattern. The game also features
inventory item challenges (it does not have Find Lists), jigsaw-like puzzles
and a variety of mini-games.
Mera encourages Amanda's
nascent magical abilities. She also conveys tidbits of information about
magical creatures, artifacts and history. Amanda's skills strengthen and she
is forced to confront her former mentor, Dr. Magus. Amanda must decide which
mentor is the most trustworthy, as the conflict between magic and science
plays out in the endgame, with the prospect of further adventures.
-- The Unknown Quantity
*Age of Enigma: The
Secret of the Sixth Ghost
This is an unusual
adventure-lite/casual adventure set in a dystopian future. It begins on Long
Island, where you can see the New York City skyline in ruins. A new
government has taken over and is highly suspicious of any psychic activity.
For instance, any house that is suspected of being haunted is immediately
A young woman named
Ashley has been experiencing odd, frightening nightmares. She is contacted
by the Fraternity of Mediums, which sends her to a house that has figured
prominently in her dreams. There she encounters a dark, hooded figure, who
says that his name is Nathan. He indicates that Ashley has remarkable
psychic powers -- powers that only he is qualified to help her develop. The
first step in her training has Ashley freeing six ghosts who are trapped in
various rooms in the house.
Learning to manipulate
the contents of each room, Ashley discovers how to travel to the moment in
each ghost's past life when a pivotal mistake trapped him or her in the
physical realm. She visits a variety of times and places, including a temple
at the time of Incan human sacrifices and a Zen garden and bridal suite in
The graphics are
fashionably stylized. Background music and ambient sounds are unusual --
they include arresting uses of the human voice. Voiceovers during cut scenes
are professional. The game contains mature themes, as well as frequent
references to the occult.
Kudos to the designer of
the creative mini-games in The Secret of the Sixth Ghost. They
include manipulating patterns, visualizing three dimensions, matching
symbols, and analyzing images. These are supplemented by inventory
challenges, including the ability to combine items in inventory. Although
there aren't any Find Lists in this game, you must occasionally locate items
in a specific category or pick up pieces of a particular object. An
intriguing feature allows you to individually adjust the difficulty level of
Nathan appears after each
ghost is freed, encouraging Ashley and delivering information that is
alluring and vaguely threatening. He is one of the mysteries in this game --
his appearance is ominous, but his intentions seem good. Ashley has no
choice but to accept his guidance, as he alone knows what's really going on
in the house and why her presence is required.
The Pocket Watch --
Lost in Time: The
Eliza has always wondered
about the goings-on in her village's mysterious clock tower. One day she
decides to investigate. Her unexpected entrance throws off the finely tuned
mechanism, causing the timestream to go horribly wrong, with anomalies
occurring all over town. In the midst of the ruin of the tower, she
discovers a pocket watch that, strangely, is sentient and speaks with a
voice of authority.
The watch bears the
"imprint" of a young man with old-fashioned glasses and an out-of-style
haircut. The watch advises Eliza that if she recovers its missing gears, she
can control different aspects of time -- granting her the ability to
retrieve lost items and people. Once the watch is fully operational, it
(he?) can show Eliza how to fix the time anomalies and save the village.
Eliza, understandably, is
reluctant to trust a talking watch, and frequently second guesses its
instructions. The watch, though eager to impress her, enjoys teasing Eliza
and makes sarcastic remarks. (The game is fully and competently voiced.)
This heroine/mentor duo contributes the sharpest dialog of any game listed
here and is the best portrayal of a relationship in conflict. As the story
progresses, it is evident that the watch knows a lot more about the town and
about Eliza than he cares to reveal.
Graphics in The
Clockwork Tower are naturalistic and the village environments, including
the local museum, are quaint and appealing. Challenges include inventory
puzzles, mini-games, and Hidden Objects with a Find List. Partway through
the game an interactive map becomes available. This eliminates much
back-and-forthing as Eliza revisits every area, preparing a final attempt at
fixing the clock tower and time itself.
Henry Hudson -- History
Unsolved Mystery Club:
Henry Hudson is still
alive! And he's the bureau chief for a secret organization called the
Unsolved Mystery Club. Several of his top agents have gone missing in
various places and times. Your job -- investigate these disappearances and
determine if they are linked.
As you explore the
environments in exotic locations -- including Mali, Peru, and Antarctica --
Henry Hudson provides historical information and guidance. His mentorship is
less "hands-on" than that of the other mentors. He explains developments and
issues orders to keep you on track, but doesn't actually engage in
back-and-forth dialogs. Most of the time he trusts you to function on your
own in these eerie, authentically detailed surroundings.
Striking a nice balance
between exploration and puzzle-solving, this IHOG contains a handful of Find
Lists in each time period. Gameplay focuses on inventory challenges (spiced
up by a few item combination challenges), pattern puzzles, and mini-games.
Intriguing novelties include an interactive journal and translating foreign
unfolds as a series of enticing mysteries, but the ending doesn't satisfy
its early promise. In the final time period, after confronting repetitive
(though skippable) sliding block puzzles, the game reveals a quick cut scene
that doesn't explain much. The overall game quality up to that point is
high; the anti-climactic final moments are a disappointing contrast.
The Girl -- Charming
You are driving along a
lonely road at night when your car crashes, stranding you in a dark wood. A
girl comes to your rescue. She is slender, with large luminous eyes and a
confident air. She doesn't introduce herself, but instructs you to follow a
path to the local hotel, where you will be able to use a phone to call for
help. After reaching the hotel, you are dismayed to learn that, when walking
back toward the road, none of the forest paths contain an exit. Sooner or
later, you are forced to return to the hotel.
Two other people are at
the hotel -- the owner and an elderly woman who tells your fortune. They
have been there since a disastrous flood, which inundated the town below.
Much of the hotel and the surrounding landscapes still show the ravages of
the flood, with debris scattered everywhere. Tendrils of algae and strands
of seaweed hang down from the walls and add to the stylized, creepy
environments, shot through with glow-in-the-dark neon colors.
The girl takes you aside
and confides that she has been trying to leave her job at the hotel and its
claustrophobic wood, and thinks that the answer to getting out lies
somewhere in the partially flooded town. You may be just the person to find
the answer she is seeking, allowing you both to escape to the outside world.
The girl's youth, innocence, and incomplete knowledge make her unusual as a
mentor. Still, she is the pivotal figure who initiates and holds you to a
quest for answers -- and she knows more than she is prepared to admit, even
is a well written and
voiced IHOG that draws you into its odd drama. The game contains a series of
mysteries, discovered through the process of solving inventory challenges,
pattern puzzles, and mini-games. The Find Lists have a novel feature -- you
can elect to forgo item searching and instead play a Match-3 game that
delivers the same inventory item. As you puzzle your way deeper into the
town's mysteries, you see flashbacks of events that happened before the
flood, shown via camera angles that obscure as much as they reveal.
Every time you seem to
hit a wall, the girl is there to encourage you, providing a tantalizing
glimpse into the town's past, and redirecting you to a series of
increasingly horrific discoveries. Near the end, the girl suddenly draws
back. Her own internal conflicts assert themselves, and she demands that you
stop. But by then you are close to the solution and, like a hound following
a scent, you aren't inclined to take orders any more.
Companions -- Age and Gender
The protagonists in
casual games are frequently young women. Of the twelve games described in
the first two Casual Companions editorials, half of the protagonists are
young females. I've no objection to assuming the role of a lovely young
girl. However, after the sixth or seventh game in a row, following the
exploits of a very young woman does start to get...well...a trifle old.
Companions, happily, show
much more variety than protagonists. (Only one game in the twelve features a
young woman as a companion: Phantasmat.) Though most of the sidekicks
and mentors I've described are male, gender becomes less of a defining
quality when the character is a magical being, an animal, a homunculus, or a
There are exceptions to
the "youthful protagonist" trend. For instance, Sherlock Holmes in Hound
of the Baskervilles is somewhere between youth and middle age, as is
Rachel Broadview in Lost Secrets: Bermuda Triangle. Other casual
games -- notably Murder she Wrote and Love Story: The Beach
Cottage -- feature middle-aged females as the protagonist. As a casual
gamer, I certainly wouldn't object to seeing more protagonists whose
backgrounds include a decade or more of character-developing maturation and
ARGHGHG! The Autosave
Most casual games have an
autosave feature. This automatically saves your progress when you leave the
game, and puts you right where you left off when you start the game again.
Autosaving is less
bothersome in general when compared to traditional save game features. You
don't have to figure out how to save your game and you don't need to
remember to save your game before exiting. However, the autosave feature
sometimes turns from a friend into a frenemy.
In Lost in Time: The
Clockwork Tower, for instance, I hit a glitch where a gold gear
disappeared and I couldn't place it in the pocket watch. I found a
workaround for the problem -- if I removed all the other gears from their
"holding area" and placed them inside the pocket watch mechanism
immediately before picking up the last gold gear, none of the gears
disappeared. To figure this out, though, I had to go back to the beginning
and replay the game up to the gold gear sequence over and over again, trying
something new each time. I liked the game so much it was worth it, but it
would have been much less frustrating if I had been able to return to a
saved game or checkpoint closer to the problem, rather than starting at the
beginning each time.
If casual games continue
to autosave, it might make sense to also include a feature that makes
checkpoint saves available throughout the game. I think that any difficulty
including this feature would be offset by the convenience for gamers who hit
a glitch, or want to go back and replay a sequence, or re-attempt a
previously skipped puzzle, or view a cutscene. It would be a lifesaver for
those saintly folks who write walkthroughs, and also for those
not-so-saintly folks who write reviews and editorials.
Coming up Next
Look to this space to
see more discussion of casual games and companionship. Next up: Casual
Companions -- Teams.
**Note: some of the ideas
for this article were influenced by Character Development and
Storytelling for Games, a book by Lee Sheldon.
copyright © 2011